It depends how you use it.
Yoga, as a discipline, is chameleon-like in its adaptability to whatever you desire to gain from it. It also has several unique benefits and requires its practitioners to develop skills that can be found nowhere else in fitness.
Its roots go back thousands of years ago in an era when many health and beauty ideals were very different than they are today. It was meant for wellness in all of its forms, and versatility became built-in.
Therefore, if weight loss is your goal, yoga has several mechanisms that can be harnessed to achieve it.
Is it the best way to lose fat? Again, it depends. Yoga lends itself to a practice in which devotees can enjoy its benefits for many years, including weight loss. As a weight loss modality, it isn’t fast, but it is sustainable. And, if you use it in keeping with its original goal of total wellness, it can be highly effective.
For example, recent studies are debunking the concept that different aspects of fitness, such as cardio, have compartmentalized benefits and should be developed in separate workouts. For several decades, cardio has been considered to be the best way to burn fat. And while it is an essential element of fitness and certainly can be a great way to get rid of excess calories, strength training is now beginning to be recognized more and more for its major role in weight loss.
Almost all of yoga’s asanas involve static, or nonmoving, strength training. Muscles can be challenged by range-of-motion exercises, and by nonmoving ones such as planks or wall sits. While the specific benefits of these two types of exercise differ slightly, they both build muscle. And while yoga is typically thought of as a stretching workout, a major element of each class is static strength training. In order to support yourself and keep from falling over in Extended Side Angle, you have to use almost every muscle in your legs while you are in the long lunge, and to keep your upper body still as you fight gravity.
How does this affect fat loss? More and more, it is being found that a faster metabolism, rather than immediate calorie burn, has much more impact on weight loss than was previously thought. And the most effective way to increase it is through strength training.
The rate at which your body burns through the food you’ve immediately eaten, and then starts looking around for more fuel, is affected the most by how much muscle mass you have in proportion to everything else. If you’re concerned about bulking up, don’t worry—it takes a specialized training and nutrition program to do that. However, what more muscle will do is allow you to burn more calories per minute, even when you’re not exercising. You could literally be losing weight in your sleep!
Again, you might not burn as many calories during an hour-long yoga class as you might if, say, you went for a jog for the same amount of time. But, if you take into account the extra muscle you’ll build and how much your metabolism after the class will increase, a strength-focused yoga workout can be a very effective weight-loss tool.
The only fine print is that the intensity level has to be fairly high as far as the amount of strength your workout requires. You don’t need to have dramatic amounts of flexibility to benefit from this kind of workout, but you do need to challenge your muscles in order to reap that metabolism boost.
Another way that yoga can assist with weight loss is through variety. If you do the same workout for too long without changing it up every once in a while or mixing it in with other forms of exercise, your body is going to get bored. This is true for both strength training and for cardio, both of which assist with weight loss through different mechanisms. That’s when the dreaded weight-loss plateau tends to set in, and it can become discouraging for your time and effort not to accomplish what it did before.
How can you use yoga to prevent this from happening? One selling point of yoga is that it is very easy to weave it in to your fitness regimen without slowing down what you’re trying to get out of your other workouts. For example, the exercises in conventional strength training usually require that you keep the movements within a certain range of motion where the joints are the least likely to give out under a heavier load. A strength-training program is the most efficient when you have a balanced range of motion. Too much mobility, and you’re prone to hyperextension and injury; too little, and you may not be able to move completely through an exercise and thus end up sacrificing some of the benefit.
Many of yoga’s asanas increase your gains in range of motion without requiring you to put weight on certain joints. For example, Natarajasana, or King Dancer, encourages extension and mobility in the lumbar spine, and is, of course, a weight-free exercise. The ability to control and preserve the lumbar curve is essential in weightlifting exercises such as deadlifts, and losing that skill paves the way to a herniated disk.
Also, many forms of cardio are, by their nature, repetitive. To some extent, this is a good thing, as this leaves you free to focus on the intensity of the workout and getting your heart rate to where you want it. However, once again, it is easier for a weight-loss plateau to set in after weeks of the same workout, even if you increase the intensity. Also, a common belief is that in general, cardio is easier on your joints. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Cardio is incredibly important for systemic health and for your heart’s ability to function properly, and is a crucial part of a balanced fitness program. Many of the potential drawbacks can be counterbalanced through yoga. Critics of cardio for weight loss often point to the loss of effectiveness due to the repetitive movements in the muscles. A muscle is going to stop growing as quickly and requiring as many calories to sustain itself if it is only asked to do the same movements over and over again without novel stimulation. Yoga’s asanas require the joints to stretch and support the body in a seemingly endless number of directions, which can easily be adapted to offset a plateau effect from jogging or the elliptical.
Also, yoga eliminates many muscle imbalances, focuses on healthy range of motion, and improves posture, thus taking much of the pressure off the joints. Also, adaptability is built into many yoga routines. It is rare to find two yoga classes that are exactly the same, and just about any yoga sequence can be modified to fit your needs. Many posture problems and muscle imbalances can be directly addressed through yoga, preventing uneven pressure from being put on the joints through unhealthy movement patterns. Cardio requires continuous motion, and if healthy movement patterns can be established, problems with shock absorption or uneven wear and tear can be prevented before they can become a problem.
Yoga’s history and benefits are vast. Its adaptability gives the practitioner an incredible versatile skill set for addressing a variety of health problems or fitness goals. If used properly, it can be a powerful asset in a weight-loss program. For those who practice it for its preventative benefits or who may simply enjoy it as its own discipline, these are some of the many ways yoga can enhance total wellness.
Clarisse McLeod, M.A., C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer, yoga, Pilates, and barre instructor specializing in weight loss, corrective exercise, and strength training. She is also the creator of Abili-Barre, a revolutionary exercise program that combines corrective exercise and modified ballet. A long-time resident of Ventura County, she believes that fitness should be fun, and creates safe, doable workout programs that build upon each client’s individual strengths to accomplish their goals. To get to know her and to understand a bit more about her training style, visit her website at www.personalbarre805.com.